Cognitive Daily

Do deadlines help procrastinators?

The Social Science Statistics blog (new to me, but it’s been around for a while) has a good writeup of a 2002 study by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch which systematically examines the effectiveness of deadlines in preventing procrastination:

They randomized participants into three categories: three evenly-spaced deadlines every 7 days; an end-deadline after 21 days; or a self-imposed schedule of deadlines within a three week period.

Which one would you select if you could? Maybe the end-deadline because it gives you the most flexibility in arranging the work (similar to a final exam or submitting your dissertation all at once)? Ariely and Wertenbroch found that the end-deadline does the worst both in terms of finding errors and submitting on time. Participants with evenly-spaced deadline did best. But that group also liked the task the least, maybe because they had several unpleasant episodes of reading silly texts, or because they spent more time than the other groups.

To me the most interesting result of the study is that self-imposed deadlines don’t appear to help procrastinators [update: they do help, just not as much as external deadlines]: they need rigid, externally-imposed deadlines in order to get the job done. And as Sebastian Bauhoff points out in his summary, even then they don’t like it.

[update: added a figure below]

Here’s a summary of the results for a proofreading task:



  1. #1 csrster
    October 25, 2006

    Sounds like an interesting article. I’ll _definitely_ get around to reading it just as soon as I have time.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    October 25, 2006

    Heh. I’ll respond to that comment as soon as I add it to my schedule.

  3. #3 SharonC
    October 25, 2006

    I found it interesting that once the participants had set their own deadlines, those deadlines turned into rigid externally-imposed deadlines.

    It is still a different issue from the one faced by the person with a large workpile, trying to follow one of the common recommendations of procrastination avoidance by setting deadlines. Typically in that case, if you miss a deadline you’ve set, only you know about it.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    October 25, 2006

    Actually, looking a bit closer at the study, the self-imposed deadlines do help a bit, just not as much as the externally imposed deadlines. I’m going to add a figure to the post to clear this up.

  5. #5 ANaples
    October 25, 2006

    This is one of those things clinicians look for when screening for adhd. Also, a proofreading task is like torture for these individuals. Cool paper, but I wonder how the numbers would look if the sample was pre-screened.

  6. #6 D.
    August 19, 2008

    I’m the biggest procrastinator I know and the only thing that motivates me to get a job *started* before the last conceivable moment – make-believing “the deadline’s tomorrow”. Any other rule, self-imposed or not, seems pleading to be broken.